Monday Morning, Cameroon

On the heels of the recent school shooting in Pakistan, we present this nonfiction piece by writer Lindsey Laveaux, about her time as a school teacher in Cameroon and a day when the school and children were attacked by an angry political mob in 2008. Although countries away, this is an image of what it may have felt like for last week’s survivors.

By Lindsey Laveaux

As they came running down the hillside, I recognized them. Jean-Claude, one of the local moto-taxi men who many mornings would laugh lightheartedly and ask, “What about me and my head?” right after I’d strap on my bright-red safety helmet and climb onto the back of his motorcycle.

That Monday I also saw Bienvenue, another moto-taxi driver. He often rushed to pick me up by the side of the road whenever he saw me in town. Flashing a handsome smile, Bienvenue liked to confidently promise that I’d be totally safe since I was on his motorcycle and that he was, of course, the best driver in town.

Descending from the hill, I also saw Alphonse, running closely alongside Patrick. Seeing these two men usually provided a sense of comfort. Upon my return from long trips, the pair, like stone-carved lions, proudly and majestically placed at the main roundabout at the entrance of town, signaled that I had arrived safely back in my village.

After passing by them on a few of my returns, Alphonse and Patrick began to wave at me, welcoming me back into town. I’d never had a full conversation with either of them, but I’d come to recognize them as friendly and warm faces in our village.

I also recognized the other men on the hill. With one, I had spent hours at his shop, negotiating cheap prices to buy my furniture. The other faces I had seen daily, when I went out walking through the market, through the outskirts of town, and past their homes. With each meeting, I had been welcomed with broad smiles that accompanied their “Bonjour!” These small gestures of kindness signaled my acceptance into the community.

But on that Monday, while teaching, I took a small step outside of my classroom and saw these men running down the hillside. I instantly recognized them. Blades that seemed like an illusion of gleaming lights circled around the group like a lightning ring, forcing my eyes into a squint with each of their movements. As my heart responded to what my eyes were attempting to decipher, it began to beat faster and faster like a drum.

Running full force toward me with sticks and machetes in hand, were Jean-Claude, Bienvenue, Alphonse, Patrick, and more than fifty other men, who like a storm on an otherwise clear day, appeared determined to destroy anything in their path.

The night before, I had attended a small dinner party held by my friend Jacques. A local businessman, he owned one of the major stores in town and was the child of a neighboring village’s king and queen. Jacques’ solid academic abilities were recognized by many important people and organizations, including the government of France. He had been offered an academic scholarship to study abroad and at the age of eighteen left for Paris. There, he met his future wife, a French Caribbean woman named Nina, who was also studying in Paris. Together, Nina and Jacques returned to West Africa and established several lucrative business ventures including gas stations, travel agencies, and car dealerships. The running joke in town was that I was the family’s niece, because so many people thought I closely resembled Nina, and like her, I have ethnic origins from the French-speaking Caribbean.

The night of the party, I arrived at the house via a chauffeured car sent by the family. In true African and Caribbean style, I was welcomed by a plump and robust woman with extended arms ready to envelop me. Many kisses, hugs, and introductions later, family and guests settled down and we began to talk about the state of affairs locally and abroad: the current conditions in Haiti, the various crises plaguing West and Central Africa, France’s malevolence, and even the implications of the U.S. possibly electing its first black president. We discussed it all, while aromas from roasted meats seasoned with traditional spices, fried fish, and sautéed green legumes, filled the air.

At the end of the night, exhausted and ready to return home, I overheard one of the other guests make mention of a transit workers’ strike. Planned for the next day, this strike was in response to unemployment, food shortages, and rising gases prices throughout the country. I didn’t pay much attention to this comment since I was thinking about how late it was, and that I needed to get home.

We said our farewells and the driver took me home. From inside the car, I looked out at the broken and unpaved road made clear by the car’s headlights. The ground’s deep depressions and fractures made it difficult for the car to move at a steady pace. And like the various governments we’d discussed earlier — some fractured by corruption and others ravaged by political violence — I was reminded that the road to stability was going to be a bumpy one.

Despite this, I thought of Cameroon as quiet and peaceful. Many things may have needed fixing, but there was a sense of tranquility despite surprising obstacles. For instance, the modestly built home I’d previously lived in had proved to be very accessible to thieves; the year before, the home was burglarized while I was visiting a friend in a neighboring village. Even so, I had grown accustomed to not expect direct danger or violence here. This sense was fully solidified while leaving Jacques’ home. For the first night in a very long time, I felt an affirmed sense of comfort. I thought, Everything is fine here. We are OK, and we are safe here.

That Monday morning seemed like any other Monday morning in town. I woke up early to eat my usual breakfast of oatmeal and fruit.

After watching the news for a bit, it was time to get started on my walk to school. Many roads ran throughout the village, but over time one particular road had become my favorite path. Running parallel to the main road, this side road was located deeper into the village. Separating both roads were homes, bushes, and oil palm trees. From this side road, the rest of the village was beautifully displayed as it sat in a deep and rounded crater. This picturesque path was much safer than the heavily trafficked two-lane main road. Each morning, the main road became congested with taxis, motorcycles, and private cars. On the side road however, there was no traffic and it was relatively quiet, except for the sounds and smells of morning: chatter as mothers prepared their children for school, and freshly fried beignets.

As usual on this morning, I took this side road. While I was walking, I quickly noticed how quiet the road was; I did not hear the usual hum of traffic in the distance or clusters of small children walking in the opposite direction to the primary school.

Oddly, upon approaching the first major intersection, I saw a huge oil palm tree lying in the road. It would have been very difficult for a vehicle or motorcycle to pass by, as the tree’s thick base ran lengthwise across the road, connecting one side to the other. Surely, I thought, the heavy rains from the night before have brought the tree crashing down, blocking the road.

Taking note of the usual cluster of people at the crossroad, I began to strategically perch one foot on the side of the tree, ready to climb over. Just as I began to move, a motorcycle taxi and his passenger drove right up to the fallen tree. As the driver was struggling to circumvent one end of the tree, a man came running from the small group of people. He stood in the moto-taxi’s path, thrust his finger in front of the driver, and yelled, “You cannot cross! This is a strike and everyone must follow!”

Culturally believing it as a curse for the day if a moto-driver does not successfully transport his first passenger, the driver pleaded with the angry man. Like negotiating prices at the market, the two men went
back and forth.

“Please, let me transport her to school.”

“No! I told you!”

“But please, brother, let us pass. She is my first passenger!”

Finally the angry man won his bid and the passenger got off the bike and continued her journey on foot. The driver, visibly frustrated, turned around and rode away.

While I climbed over the tree, putting one leg and then the other over, it finally occurred to me that someone deliberately put the palm down to block the street. But true to the ways of an optimist who ignores warning signs, I continued down the strikingly silent road with an uneasy feeling in my heart.

Arriving at school on time, I headed straight to my classroom. Tightly packed in the classroom like sardines in a can were my 101 students, all teenagers and young adults. Their eyes met mine and their mouths slowed to silence as I entered the classroom. Almost instantly, each student in his or her freshly pressed uniform — charcoal gray for the boys and a light turquoise for the girls — stood up and proclaimed in beautiful unison, “Good morning, Ms. Lindsey!”

As they sat down, I glanced at the usual offenders in the back, Christophe and Bernard. Every day, these two boys managed to disrupt themselves or someone around them. Thick as thieves, the friends would play and then fight, all in the span of a quick twenty minutes.

Bernard might have taken Christophe’s pen. In retaliation, Christophe would then take Bernard’s backpack hostage while threatening to rub it into the classroom’s dusty earthen floor. The other children liked to watch these arguments, and I would then look up to see a huddle of heads, arms, and shoulders of children watching them fight. Luckily my respite lay in knowing that beyond these occasional distractions, most of the students were focused and attentive.

On a bench close to the front of the classroom, sat The Girls. Syntiche, Collette, Kevine, and Juliette. I’d taught them the previous year and developed a particular interest in their personal lives. Syntiche, often the first in the room to raise her hand, loved school and especially English. The rest of the girls’ antics would leave her uncontrollably laughing, gasping for air and bobbing her shoulders. She came from a strict and religious household and was not permitted to participate in after-school activities. Collette was quieter than Syntiche and more observant. Highly involved, she was part of my after-school club, the Girls’ Circle, and was also on the soccer team. Kevine was a reformed troublemaker whose last classroom offense landed her in the office of the discipline master, who ordered her to kneel down for ten minutes and write a letter of apology. After that day of punishment, she voluntarily moved to the front of the room and addressed me as “Madame.” Kevine now held my classroom’s coveted position as board cleaner.

Juliette, the fourth, was a teenager growing before my eyes. In September, newly arrived from a neighboring village, Juliette was a lithe and soft-spoken fifteen-year-old. Much like Syntiche and Collette, she was quiet, shy, and reserved. Juliette showed a strong interest in her studies and often attended our Girls’ Club meetings. By November, I saw her transform into a gregarious and lively girl with many friends from different class levels. However, by December and after many careful observations, I finally approached her, concerned.

“Juliette, are you pregnant?” I asked, in French. Her eyes fell to the floor and her toothy smile dropped. “Juliette, are you pregnant?” I repeated after a moment. Suddenly, like a child admitting her guilt, she meekly answered, “Yes.” Her once lithe and slim figure had grown plump, with a slight bump in her midsection. Juliette explained the father-to-be was a fellow student several grades ahead of her. I remained stunned by her confirmation of her pregnancy. I did not want to believe it. From that point forward, she greeted me as usual but eventually stopped coming to our Girls’ Club meetings. Week by week, I watched as her face became fuller as she began to wear sweaters in our hot classroom.

On this particular Monday morning, The Girls were all present and seated at their usual bench.

The first hour of instruction went by with few distractions. Having been satisfied with our progress, twenty minutes of the second hour was devoted to silent reading. Relieved that the students were finally quiet, I sat down at the edge of a bench located in the very front of the room at around 9 a.m.

The school building was a large square structure, resting on a plot of land. Constructed with a roof but no ceiling, the classrooms were separated by thin wooden walls that students pounded on when neighboring classes became too noisy. In the front of the building, makeshift stairs led up to the second floor. On the second level, there were additional, balcony-style classrooms that were built along the perimeter. Barriers prevented students and teachers alike from falling below into the first-floor classrooms. This set-up was ideal for the discipline master. Each hour, with both arms folded behind his back, he patrolled the second-floor walkways while looking down into the grid-like pattern of the classrooms down below. Often the discipline master could see what the teachers could not. A slight slip of a note between friends in the back of a classroom, or a student soundly asleep and shrouded by his classmates densely packed in the benches in front of him.

For the teachers, this two-story classroom building, with endless noise, caused piercing headaches, lost voices, increased classroom management issues, and a common sensation of intensity upon walking through the door frame.

Although teaching was no easy task, this Monday morning seemed like a good day, since the school building was especially quiet and calm. On the first floor, where my classroom was located, there were only two other classes (out of the usual ten) in session, and only one class on the second floor was in session.

While writing in my lesson book, I sat on a long bench located in the front of the classroom and against a wall. Right next to where I sat was the door, our classroom’s only exit to the outdoor walkway that lined the school grounds. Settled and ready to update the lesson book, I began:

Lesson 14, completed. Reviewed pronouns and —

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Christophe shoot up from his seat while holding his gaze at the window. He seemed to be looking at something in the distance, something beyond the schoolyard.

“Christophe! Sit down, please!” I casually called from my seat.

Like a fragile widower seeing his wife in her casket for the first time, Christophe let out a deep and sorrowful moan, all the while maintaining his gaze. In confusion, I stood and repeated “Christophe!”as I positioned my back in the doorway. I took a step back out of the classroom, and turned around. In the distance, on the main road, I saw a throng of men coming out of the horizon and dragging something along the road that reflected against the sun. As I looked out, I saw these men scattered throughout the road. My eyes met another group of men rapidly descending down the hillside, right in front of school grounds and clutching what appeared to be long objects.

In what seemed like an instant, I struggled to shut the makeshift door. But when they saw the first man running and then suddenly standing in front of me, his machete held high, all 101 of my students began screaming and threw themselves in the doorway in an effort to escape the classroom. As quickly as he appeared, the man vanished.

Several of the children gripped my body and we became stuck in the doorway. When we were finally able to push out to the walkway, we saw the man with the machete, along with several other armed men. I looked farther out into the schoolyard and saw a mob of armed men.

Running a few paces with the children, I tripped and fell down onto my knees while they scattered away. Crouching down, I screamed out as I felt a machete slice into my back. Stunned and still screaming, I waited for the pain. Instead, I found myself able to stand back up.

The blow was from a stick, I thought. There was no blood. I ran toward the end of the walkway with a small group of frightened children. At the end of the walkway, the children jumped down into the yard with ease. I abruptly stopped at the edge of this eight-foot drop, fearing that I would break my leg. I turned to look back, and running all around, wielding sticks, axes, and machetes, were local men from town. Incoherent, they raised their weapons as if they were going to strike. With eyes closed and a loud sob, I jumped down and landed on all fours.

By this time, over fifty men had surrounded the school grounds, moving from classroom to classroom to destroy its interiors. Stunned, but no longer silent, and now also clutching my heart, I screamed and pleaded with each attacker who approached me, asking him not to strike.

I recognized Patrick, my village greeter. He ran toward me, but quickly put his ax down when our eyes met. I attempted to hold his attention but was pushed to the side by another machete-wielding man.

Like a domino effect, the group of children around me fell down one by one as we desperately tried to scramble away.

Bodies ran in all directions. Pulling the gray and turquoise uniforms close to me as they darted by, we all clung to each other in an instant of relief, only to be met again quickly by another mobber running towards us, screaming and lifting his weapon.

The pandemonium became more and more profound and it seemed like the mob grew larger. I saw many of the students, including Syntiche and Kevine, screaming in horror as they were being chased down in circles. There was nowhere to escape to. As each child managed to lose their attackers, the aggressor would swiftly target another child running by.

By this time in my stay abroad, I’d survived malaria, typhoid fever, mumps, and driving in unsafe cars. However, for the first time, the thought quickly flashed — I might die in a place thousands of miles away from my family, and in a violent way. Falling once more and now crouched into the earth, I looked up into the blue and white sky. I focused on the beautifully, brightly shining sun, and then, shifting my eyes slightly down and to the left, I saw into the horizon. The landscape stood peaceful and calm, its tall trees reaching to meet the sky. The leaves stood still as I suddenly kneeled. I hung my head down and tightly closed my eyes.

As I waited, the chaos around me began to grow quiet. Almost as quickly as the melee had begun, the mob began to disperse. The men ran from the school grounds, yelling for the children to go home. They said that they destroyed the school because we should not have come to class during a transit strike.

Scattered all across the schoolyard were frightened, shaken, and beaten children. Stunned and confused, I began weeping. Students surrounded me and helped me to my feet. Syntiche and Kevine came to my side and pleaded with me to stop crying. Juliette and several other students emerged from behind a large tree farther away from the school. Christophe and Bernard, the usual rabble-rousers, were markedly silent.

Without saying a word, the children stayed with me as I staggered around looking for others who might have been hurt. One would occasionally whisper, “Madame, it’s OK,” each time I started crying again. After finding only students, I began looking for other teachers but saw none.

Not knowing what lay in the front of the school, the students and I quickly went to hide behind the latrines located at the back of the school. My bouts of uncontrollable crying made the children think I was injured. They began moving my arms and touching my back and legs for any injuries.

After a few minutes, we began to hear faint shouting that sounded like the voice of the discipline master. Frightened, but confident it was him, I peeked out from behind the latrine and saw him running toward us.

“Several teachers were in the staff room and saw these men running past the window,” he explained. He told us that the teachers had locked the door and stayed in the staff room. Through the windows barred with metal railings, the men then shouted insults and threatened the teachers with violence.

“One of them even tried to axe down the railing!”

The discipline master explained that he, the bursar, and the principal had also locked themselves in their respective offices after hearing the commotion and seeing the angry men stalk their windows.

In the second-floor classrooms, students had trampled each other as they attempted to run down the stairs all at once. In his confusion and fright, one teacher actually tried to jump from the second floor but was pulled back by a student.

No one could have predicted an ambush of this sort at the school.

Thirty minutes later and more composed, a group of teachers walked into town and we were met by hundreds of people out in the street. Burning tires and overturned garbage cans lay every hundred feet along the road.

Motorcycles and taxis were nowhere in sight, as it had been declared that any man with his vehicle, private or commercial, was to be attacked. Unsure of how safe the side roads were, I took the main road home. Again, the following morning, I made my way to the market along the main road.

The evening before, my neighbors warned of the possibility of a food shortage since all roads entering and exiting the village were blocked. With my chest beating at a quick pace, I tried to appear unaffected by the tense atmosphere. Large groups of people I recognized as motorcycle and taxi drivers assembled at different points along the road for more than a mile. Businesses were boarded up and more makeshift barricades blocked the road. For what felt like a mile, I practically held my breath until I reached the interior of the outdoor market. Frenzied, I bought pounds and pounds of food, some of which I had never eaten before and did not know how to prepare.

My anxiety increased with each step on the return home, yet my pace was considerably slowed by the heavy shopping bags. I did not leave my home for another three days. Jacques and his family, concerned for my safety, called a few times to ask about the village and my well-being. The family was in another part of the country that too was wracked by the strike, but they stayed safe throughout the crisis.

The mobs looted and destroyed businesses in this once quiet village.

Transportation was prohibited so food ran scarce in the market. The second day — right after a presidential speech that served only to anger citizens — a major political-party headquarters in the village was burned to the ground. That night, I stood in my enclosed courtyard and watched the flames color the sky and the smoke melt into the clouds above.

“Things will burn tonight,” I heard one neighbor say.

By the fourth day, tensions in the village slightly subsided after one road blockade was removed. For safety measures and against my will, I was forced to leave the village for a few days.

Upon my return, passing the roundabout, I saw Patrick. Our eyes met, but he quickly looked away. I would often see Bienvenue or Jean-Claude, but we never talked about that day. Perhaps they thought I hadn’t recognized them, or maybe they thought it wise to act as if nothing happened.

Featured in the book The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35; narrative non-fiction anthology (August 2013, ed. Asha Veal Brisebois)